The 2017 season didn’t go quite like Matt Manning planned, but by year’s end he was dominating for the West Michigan Whitecaps. While several prospect sites surprised recently by dropping him down in their rankings of the Tigers farm system, and overall top 100 prospects, Manning isn’t concerned. He was gracious enough to talk at length about his 2017 season, his development as a pitcher, and big goals for the 2018 campaign.
Bless You Boys: So have you been out in California for a while this offseason?
Matt Manning: Yeah I just went out to Seattle to visit my girlfriend, and I’ll be heading back to Lakeland first of the month.
BYB: So spring camp for you will start in early February?
Manning: I think on the 13th.
BYB: So we saw some video on Twitter of you working out at VAST Athletics, which is where you trained in high school. How has it been returning there after another year of pro baseball under your belt?
Manning: It’s been good, kind of going back where I started learning to pitch in high school and merging the two, between like everything they’ve taught me, and finding what’s comfortable for me. I did the same thing last year except that I didn’t start throwing until the beginning of January. So I started throwing earlier, got my arm ready, and just changed my offseason program a bit.
BYB: Is it cool to have the perspective of another year of pro ball under your belt, and then going back to work with people who’ve known you since you were 15 or 16 years old?
Manning: Exactly, I have a really good foundation, I know what I’m doing and what works for me, and then take that in there and just emulate everything I’ve been working on.
BYB: It’s gotta be cool for them to see you come back and see the progress you’ve made. That’s got to be pretty gratifying for your coaches there.
Manning: Exactly, yeah, it’s good.
BYB: Last year you were really focused on process, focusing on throwing strikes and pitching with good mechanics. Is that still your emphasis, as opposed to going out there wanting to pitch a certain amount of innings, or strike out a certain percentage of hitters?
Manning: Yeah, my goal this year is to throw 70-75 percent strikes, get ground balls and win as many games as I can. Give up as few runs as I can. Winning the game, for me, is my goal. So yeah I just want to keep developing as a pitcher and stick with the process.
BYB: Obviously you didn’t have so many innings in high school, so the Tigers weren’t going to send you out there to throw 100 innings or something crazy, but was it hard to stay patient in the spring when other guys are heading off on their assignments?
Manning: Yeah it’s a little tough to not have your first full year go quite how you planned, but looking back it was a good decision to keep me in extended spring training. It allowed me to brush up on my mechanics with A.J. (Sager, Tigers roving pitching instructor) and some of the other coordinators, and just be able to work my mechanics without focusing on winning games. So it allowed me to just work on things, improve and be even more ready for my season when it started.
BYB: Yeah and in retrospect, it worked out perfectly because you were able to join the Whitecaps late in the season and participate in the playoff run.
Manning: Yeah, exactly.
BYB: Did you work on a slider at all last year?
Manning: No, just using fastball, changeup, curveball. We haven’t even discussed a slider at this point. I feel like I’ve got three plus pitches that I can use, so I’m going to run with those as far as I can.
BYB: In a lot of video I saw from you late in the year, the curveball was looking sharp. Do you concern yourself with metrics like the spin rate on it, or are you mainly just going by feel?
Manning: Yeah I’m just focused on the feel for it, trying to get the right shape on it and keep my arm speed up.
BYB: Are you throwing a circle change?
Manning: Right now I throw a split change, something that Jorge (Cordova) showed me at West Michigan, same thing with Ace (Adams, Connecticut Tigers pitching coach). They feel like it’s a good feel pitch for me, so I’ve been working with that.
BYB: Yeah I know Sandy Baez has a pretty nasty split change as well, and several other guys in the system are throwing it. Has your feel for that pitch come along, especially since it was something you just started working with last season?
Manning: Yeah when I throw it the right way, the way it’s supposed to be thrown, it works a lot, has good dive, and it’s just a really good pitch for me. So I’ve just got to keep playing with it, use it and try to master it.
BYB: Are you throwing a four seam fastball exclusively, or do you mix a two seam grip in there as well?
Manning: Yeah I play around with a two-seamer, so I’ll use both four seam and two seam fastballs.
BYB: I saw one scouting report on you that mentioned that they saw some cutting action on the four-seamer on a few occasions. Do you play with trying to cut the fastball at all, or is that just really just a pitch backing up on you?
Manning: Yeah that’s just a pitch that maybe I got around on too much, sometimes I just let my body get out ahead. So yeah that’s not something I’m trying to do, it’s just if the leverage I get on it is off sometimes it’ll cut a bit, or tails too much and dives in on a right-hander. But yeah, not something I’m really trying to do.
BYB: So you started out the season in Connecticut, and by and large you didn’t have any trouble. No one was really hitting you. But there were some outings where you were throwing 90 mph more than 94 mph. Were you overthinking your mechanics to a degree coming out of a pretty long spring camp?
Manning: Yeah, I mean I wasn’t trying to overthrow. If I wanted to I could go out and throw every fastball 96-97, but I’d probably get into a lot of bad counts and walk more people than I wanted to. And in the New York-Penn league, my strikeout to walk ratio was good most outings, and that’s really what I’ve been working on. Staying out of the deep counts.
So I was just trying to throw as many strikes as I could rather than just try to overpower people. I can ramp up to that whenever I want, but I also work on changing speeds with my fastball, not just between fastball and my changeup. So I’m just looking to get ahead, and then 0-2, 1-2, you can ramp up to the high 90’s.
So it’s all feel, and all just part of what I’ve been learning and working on. It’s all just me trying to develop as a pitcher, and not just a guy who goes out there trying to throw 100 mph all the time.
BYB: When you went to the Whitecaps, did you feel a jump in competition level there? The first two starts didn’t go so well.
Manning: I mean, I was really excited. I was probably a little too excited and thought too much about it. But I was honestly glad it happened now, because when I get my next promotion I’ll know how to handle it. The first two starts were a little rough, but I got together with my catcher and with Cordova and we looked at them. There were just a few spots where a strikeout or a fly ball would’ve gotten me out of an inning, but it’s baseball and things happen.
BYB: So then your last four starts especially, you really started mowing people down again. Were you feeling things coming together for you at that point?
Manning: Yeah once I got comfortable and felt like part of team I just settled down a bit and trusted what I could do. And I could trust in all these good players around me, so I just let it loose and let my team work.
BYB: We’ve heard nothing but good things about Mike Rabelo and Jorge Cordova. How was your experience working with them?
Manning: Oh yeah. Coach Hess, Mike Rabelo, Jorge, they were awesome. That’s a great staff, and they’re a big reason the Whitecaps won so many games last year.
BYB: How was joining a team during the stretch drive? It must have been satisfying to come in and help out down the stretch and in the playoffs the way you did.
Manning: It was. You know the first two games I was a little nervous, but I got my feet wet, and my coaches were real positive. We built really good relationships. I just tried to show them what I could do, and they showed me how much they could help me.
BYB: So this year, we’d assume you’re going to be at West Michigan at least part of the season. Have you met Lance Parrish yet?
Manning: No, I haven’t yet. But I’m setting my goals high. I think I’ve shown I can pitch in the Midwest League, and pitch well. So we’ll see how things go this spring but if I’m throwing well hopefully I make the Florida State League. Going to West Michigan is great too. All the minor leagues are the minor leagues. I’m just going to stick with the process and throw where they want me to throw. Because there’s only the minor leagues and the major leagues in the end. So yeah, I just work on myself and my pitching.
Thanks to Matt Manning for chatting with us, and be sure to follow him on Twitter @MattManning19.